Trip Report 5 July – 29 July 2019
Noatak River approximately 476 miles
Arctic Alaska entire trip north of the Arctic Circle
Crew: Sue Plankis and Rob Kesselring
written in Kotzebue, Alaska 30 July
When people imagine far north canoe trips, they might visualize bears, ice, and barren landscapes. After 34 or so expeditions up here, when I think about paddling the far North, especially north of the Arctic Circle, I think of weather. You can plan for lots of eventualities on a canoe trip, but all you can do for weather is prepare for anything. Weather is unpredictable. Weather is the wild card.
That certainly was true in 2019 on the Noatak River. When we passed through Anchorage electric fans at Home Depot were sold out. The temperature hovered around 90F. Anchorage is a long way from Lucky Six Creek at the headwaters of the Noatak. But when we landed there on the following morning on a short gravel bar it was hot, mid-70’s at least. Eric Sieh owner and pilot of Arctic Backcountry Flying Service is a world-class bush pilot, and he does it on a nose-wheel Cessna 206. He has big spongy tundra tires, but still, this cat can fly. Eric was surprised how little we were packing for a 24-day trip without resupply, but I think he was happy in the warm, thin air that he had a light load.
For years, Sue and I have guided expeditions down the Noatak. Once before, putting in as high at Lucky Six. We ran the trips to the village of Noatak in 15 days. This time we were going all the way to Kotzebue on the Arctic coast. I figured with 24 days planned for the expedition; we would have a lot of free time for fishing, birding, photography, prospecting and especially hiking at the headwaters. The mountains up at the top are the most impressive and are close to the river. Snow and ice are around, which is always fun in July, and we would be treading pristine ground. Unfortunately, the temperature on 7 July and 8 July at Lucky Six reached 88F. It was mid-90’s in the tent. You need to remember that we were well North of the Arctic Circle, so in early July, the sun is still high until late into the night. Temps do not cool much until 10:00 pm. Another factor, the heat brought out flies and mosquitoes, which explains how I knew the tent temperatures reached the mid-nineties. Several times I have lectured at Canoecopia to hundreds of participants: “There are no significant bothersome insects on the Noatak, I have seldom worn a bug jacket, and rarely bothered with a repellant.” I must eat those words now. The mosquitoes the first ten days on the Noatak were off the charts bad, rivaling Taltson (KK 1995) lower Nahanni (Lara 1996) Elk (PL 2012). What was worse? We could not lose the bugs even on the river. Paddling the technical rapids of the upper Noatak while suffocating in a headnet defies description. We did persevere and hiked far enough upstream on the Noatak to say we successfully traveled the entire length the river, but it was sweaty, buggy, walking. The views were astounding – the air the clearest clear, the sky cobalt blue. After a couple of days with temperatures in the high eighties, the glaciers were gushing. The river that was Dasani clear when we landed turned creamy white. Glacier pulverized rock suspended in the meltwater made it so. After morning hikes, our afternoon routine was straight out of Finland. We would dodge the insects by staying in the tent until the heat drove us out. Like sourdough bread popping out of a toaster, we would dive into the river which was now a vanilla milkshake. Repeat.
How long could this weather last? I would never have guessed 12 days, but that’s what happened. 12 of the 15 hottest days I have ever experienced on the Noatak occurred in those first 12 days of our 2019 expedition. What might have been more extraordinary than the temperature was the low humidity. There were a few of the driest days I have ever experienced. Not a wisp of cloud. Dryer than the Chihuahuan Desert, drier than western Australia so dry that there was no need for a towel.
If you are like me, you are tired of hearing about global warming. Ten years ago I post-holed a 350.org wooden sign in my front lawn. About that time my daughter Greta was teaching in Osaka and a tidal wave knocked out a nuclear power plant in Japan. My father worked in the nuclear power industry until he died in 1967. I contacted Henry Stone, who had worked for my father to ask if Greta was in any danger of radiation poisoning. Henry assured me she was safe, and so we talked a little about global warming. He said there is “too much money in it.” I did not understand it at the time but traveling the world these past five years I get it. Certainly, I will continue to support reducing our carbon footprint, but it’s a runaway train – there is too much money in it. A salvation? We will hear more and more about geo-engineering in the years to come. It could turn things around for a while but not without unintended consequences. It’s going to be a wild ride.
Even on the remote Noatak River, you cannot escape experiencing the impact of more and more prolonged heat. I read in an old textbook that the average high temperature in the Noatak Valley in July was 55F. In 25 days we exceeded that average every day sometimes by more than 30F. But that’s weather, and a record hot July could be a fluke. What I have noticed just since 2013 is consistently taller trees, more robust willows, murkier water and by far the most extreme change, heavily eroded river banks. From 2013 I remembered a few places where the bank had caved in a bit. Today, wherever there is a riverbank, there is sluffing
Typically slabs of tundra and willow about the size of cocktail tables have slid into the river or half-way into the river. Sometimes the sluffs are the size of billiard tables, sometimes they are several acres in size and resemble a snow avalanche. It’s not super unattractive, and you get used to it, sort of like plastic bottles on Caribbean beaches. I wonder how bank sluffing might affect the width of the river and the salmon. We shall see. The frozen banks once defined the channels of the river. As the ice in the soil thaws, the banks give way. There are, or at least there were, a string of lakes along the Noatak, like a string of pearls. These lakes were at higher elevations than the river. The frozen banks acted like dams. Muddy banks erode, and many of the lakes have now blown out and drained into the Noatak. In 2014 and 2015, I brought crews into the Noatak by floatplane landing on Nelson Walker Lake. That lake has now drained into the Noatak. We camped on its beach on this trip. It reminded me of a reservoir in the West that has been drawn way down. A warmer Alaska has seemingly already changed the salmon breeding patterns. Noatak was primarily a Chum Salmon fishery. This year there was a big run of Humpys on the Noatak and even some Kings. Oldtimer Inupiats in Kotzebue are scratching their heads. So there have been some changes even in the remote valley of the Noatak. The swimming was nice but the clots from the sluffing that we sometimes, at a distance, confused with Musk-Ox were not so nice.
As beautiful as the weather was, there was another drawback to the heat. The only mammal that seemed to stick around in the valley were Arctic Ground Squirrels. I never saw so many Sik-Siks or so few other mammals. We had hoped to see some Mountain Grizzlies, Dall Sheep and Caribou. We did see a few caribou, but most living things with any sense had gone up higher in the mountains to avoid the heat and the mosquitoes. We passed a pair of two-legged mammals, the only people we saw in the first 350 miles of paddling. I had never before gone swimming in the Noatak River, but this year, full submersion 19 days. Pits and parts the other 5 days – squeaky clean. I think of the years when we set up the tipi at lunch just to warm up and when we commenced paddling in the morning at 37F. It was a different world in 2019. The second half of the trip was cloudier but just passing showers and temperatures remained warm with highs routinely in the 60’s and 70’s.
In 2013 Karen Kelley, Sue Plankis Zoë Kesselring and I discovered a site of an ancient encampment. It was revealed in the riverbank by a preponderance of caribou bones protruding from the bank at a layer about four feet below the surface. I surmised that the camp was located at a caribou crossing and the people harvested and butchered animals at that place. Caribou was not only an important food source for prehistoric people; it was also an essential resource for skins necessary for clothing, equipment, and covering for lodges. This year we stopped again at the site for a look. The thawing of the permafrost in the last few years had revealed a lot more about the site. There were many more caribou bones. Stone tools were laying around on the ground like seashells on a beach. In a few minutes, we found a dozen or more worked pieces of chert and obsidian. Then amid the bones, I found a bone spear point. This find confirmed that we had indeed discovered a site where caribou had been speared while crossing the river. We also found charcoal residue and some large flat stones positioned like tables.
I recognized these structures as stone meat caches similar to what the Inuit constructed as recently as a hundred years ago in the Canadian Arctic to keep their dried meat safe from dogs and foxes. Being part of the Noatak National Preserve, we did not keep any of the artifacts, and we were careful not to disturb the landscape. Hopefully, other paddlers will have an opportunity to make this discovery for themselves. Oh, one more thing: emerging from the thawing mud bank was a small skull of what appeared to be a Saber Tooth Tiger. When I examined one of the large “saber teeth” it broke off the jaw. I did photograph it. Who knows how old this site was? But to think there was the deposition of four feet of sediment above it and there were saber tooth cats running around at the time, it must be old. Discovering such a site, I once again felt as if I was Indiana Jones.
It’s not unusual to see a wolf along the Noatak. Over the years I think we have seen at least one on every trip. We saw three adults on this trip, but what was more exciting this time was bumping into a wolf nursery. First we saw the adult, but this big wolf did not just run away. It kept hesitating and looking back. Then along the beach on river left three wolf puppies popped out of the willows. We eddied out the canoe and pursued the pups on foot. It would be wrong to say they were friendly. It would be wrong to say they were scared. They were curious and a little shy. They would scamper toward us a few steps, and they whirl around and run five yards and then look back. I would guess their age at 12 weeks. Wolves I have known in the Canadian North whelp in April, and likely these little ones were born in that month. It was tempting, but they were too big to pick up, even if we could have caught them.
Meanwhile, the guardian wolf had walked a hundred yards to a ridge and laid down. He seemed like the blasé uncle with a hint of concern perhaps fretting, “I better not screw up my job because I will be in big trouble when the pack comes back if those puppies get kidnapped.” Eventually, the pups disappeared into the willows, and the “uncle” called them in, with a mixture of barks and howls. We were not sure we were at their den site. There was no burrow, but lots of evidence of playing and eating and a strong smell like a poorly maintained dog kennel.
The wolves of arctic Alaska look much like Minnesota Timber Wolves. They are smaller than the white Arctic Wolves we see in the Canadian barren lands and lack the high shoulders. One of the pups was jet black, again a common color variation in Alaska and Minnesota, but unlike any of the wolves, I have seen in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Whether they are fluffy-furred wolf puppies full of zest or Canada goslings going topsy turvy along the bank while fleeing our canoe in confused panic or newborn caribou calves already trotting despite really not knowing how to do it with grace, the young of any species always touch my heart.
In 2013 on the Noatak, we had seen what I called the “great eight” of northern wildlife – Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep, Musk Ox, Grizzlies, Wolves, Wolverine, and Lynx. With an even smaller crew, I thought we would see all those again and in higher numbers. But we failed to observe Moose, Dall Sheep or Wolverine. I think that was mostly due to the heat. We did have a big surprise. Over 50 miles upstream of the Noatak delta, we started seeing Spotted Seals. They would pop up around the canoe. By the time we reached the sea, we had spotted close to 50. The biggest pod of seals was the most astonishing. Fifty-seven miles from the ocean, the river was wide, and when a headwind whipped up in the afternoon, we needed a refuge and fast. Against the current, giant standing waves built up in minutes and gravel bars created sharp eddy lines and whirlpools. In these conditions, it was unsafe to paddle an open canoe. An upset would be almost impossible to recover from.
Mud banks were steep and bristled with willows. We spied a small bench just a foot and a half above river level. It was barely enough for a bivouac. We eddied out and landed. The Noatak River level can go up and down like an elevator. We knew we would have to be on a 2-hour alarm watch throughout the night and be ready to cast off if necessary. Like many twists in life, this one became a major positive. We had a little nap before we could pull together a cold supper. While we were sleeping 21 Spotted Seals beached themselves to bask and rest on a submerged mud bar just a stone’s throw from our tent. We had a perfect blind and a view of the seals for the next 12 hours. To fall asleep serenaded by Spotted Seals is unforgettable. The chorus is a blend of cat, dog and donkey noises.
Everyone always asks about the fishing and I thought I would do more fishing on this trip. Fishing certainly is beyond belief, especially in the tributaries of the Noatak. But I fish for dinner, not for sport and the time it takes to gear up, walk up a trib to a pool, catch fish, clean, cook and clean-up did not seem worth it. We had a couple of fish dinners caught grayling and char, but if I went again, I don’t think I would even bring fishing tackle. I’ve caught hundreds of trout at Nonacho, and the thrill of catch and release has faded for me.
When you travel with Sue Plankis, you know birding will be a big part of the trip. Noatak 2019 was no exception. Most Arctic birds are migrants which means they can often be seen in more southerly parts of North America during their migrations. What distinguishes birding in the North is seeing those birds in their brilliant breeding plumage. All told we witnessed 67 species of birds. American Golden Plovers on the tundra were brilliant. Terns, Gulls, Jaegers, and various shorebirds were along the river, sometimes aggressively defending their young. The Noatak passes through three canyons and passes many cliffs. These are excellent nesting sites for raptors. We had great views of Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Northern Harriers.
All in all, Redpolls were the most abundant bird; Glaucous Gulls the most omnipresent; Red Throated and Pacific Loons the most entertaining; Robins the most “what are you doing here.” It was surprising how few ducks and geese we encountered. Mergansers, Widgeon, Scoters, Canada and White-fronted Geese were around and Tundra Swans in pairs on the lakes, but they were all unusual. Non-migratory locals included Willow Ptarmigan and Boreal Chickadees. I am almost certain I heard the call of a Boreal Owl early one morning, and I wish now that I had awoken Sue for confirmation. We did not see Gyrfalcons, Siberian Tits or Hawk-owls – all locals that we observed on earlier trips. Sue’s favorite sighting was the Bar-tailed Godwit. This bird is seldom seen in North America as it breeds only in the Arctic and winters in Asia and Australia. Ironically, it was not a “lifer” for Sue. She saw a Bar-tailed Godwit four years ago near Perth in Western Australia. It gave her a great feeling to see that species at both ends of an incredible migration. We are traveling back to Western Australia in November. It’s a long flight in a jet. It must be quite the flap. I will try to add the complete list of 67 species to this trip report.
I hate to dash anyone’s image. But if your experience of the Arctic is watching National Geographic specials I must tell you, Alaska is not America’s Serengeti at least not Northern Alaska. Sometimes there are incredible wildlife dramas, and you can stand in front of 10,000 caribou, but you are much more likely to travel for days without seeing a mammal. Even in summer, the overwhelming sound you hear is silence. The overwhelming sight you see is stillness, you smell nothing. This is not a complaint. Something is soothing to the spirit to be surrounded by a panorama of quiet. It hones the senses and clears my head. When I arrived in the tiny town of Kotzebue after 25 days of solitude, civilization assaulted me with bustle, barraged me with noise and sickened me with stink. It is always a clank and a whack to come back from the wilds.
When you remove yourself from civilization, you do become more attune to nature’s sights, smells, and signals. Early in the trip we caught the unmistakable whiff of Musk-ox. I hate to admit that we chose not to eddy out and climb the bank to find the herd. We were mosquito harassed at that moment and we had come off the summer of 2018 at Nonacho immersed in Musk Ox. Not a good excuse. When an opportunity presents itself, you seize it, doing anything else insults the land. We did see Musk Ox later in the trip, but I regret not following my nose. Late in the trip, windbound and taking a nap, I was awoken by the unmistakable snort of a grizzly bear only a few feet from our tent. I was up and out that door in a flash with the shotgun and the camera. Fortunately, that Grizzly knew what almost all Grizzlies know, that two-legged mammals are the most dangerous animals in the world. He had bolted through the willows content to dine on berries and salmon.
Before this year, I had accomplished six trips in the Noatak drainage. In 2013 from Twelve Mile Lake to Noatak Village coming in by floatplane (a Beaver) from Bettles, 2014 from Nelson Walker Lake to Noatak Village coming in by floatplanes (Otter) from Bettles. 2015 from Coldfoot (a Beaver on wheels) to Lucky Six and down to Noatak Village, and then a second trip down the Kugurok (Cessna 206 tundra tires) to Noatak Village 2016 from Nelson Walker Lake to Noatak Village coming in by floatplanes (Beaver). 2017 the Kelly River (Cessna 206 tundra tires) to Noatak Village. In 2019 I wanted to paddle the whole enchilada from the headwaters to the Arctic Ocean.
Almost all Noatak paddlers pull out at Noatak Village. There is a good reason for that. Beyond Noatak Village, the river slows and widens. The current which is a strong push for 400 miles slackens. Exposure to the open seas progressively increases until the last few miles is open ocean paddling. I thought it was only about 40 miles of paddling from Noatak Village to Kotzebue, but my faithful friend and mapmaker Andy Jenks did a little research. It is 78 miles. He made us maps which were invaluable. We had headwinds, waves, and currents which made the final 78 miles the most challenging and fun of the trip. Seals, fox kits, and a great view of a Lynx added some fillip. A weather report from my niece Karen in Boston enabled us to time our open water crossing. Andy’s superlative maps kept us on course. Lean from 24 days without resupply of chow; we were mean paddling machines.
Eric Sieh flew us to Lucky Six as high up as he could fly, we hiked even higher to the base of glaciers and the very beginning of the Noatak. It was a voyage of 476 miles full of twists and turns, challenge, and accomplishment.
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