I wake at 7 a.m. at my friends Allison and AK’s house in Fairbanks, Alaska. I slept in their 5 year-old’s tiny twin bed under dinosaur blankets, because he was sleeping with them. Little kid rooms kind of freak me out for some reason, I can’t really say why. I slept a solid 5 hours though, after Bunny and I stayed up late readying our 25 days of food for the Noatak- we have no idea if that’s how long our trip will take but there’s not much information available on the Noatak river, so we decided to play it safe. Even mileages of the river vary, depending on where you look. The river is 300 miles, or 370, or 400. It depends on where you put in, I guess, and that depends on what the water is doing. It’s a wild river, no dams, so it meanders every year, as rivers are wont to do when left to their own devices- cutting new banks, flooding new channels. Abandoning others. The mileage also depends on how you measure. How does one measure a wide river? It’s a braided river with multiple channels, so which channel do you pick for your measurement? Are you paddling in a straight line?
Straight lines are social constructs, I think to myself as I brush my teeth. I slept five whole hours, and that’s just enough to get me through the day. I know I’ll sleep better once I’m actually out there in the nature, in my tent. I turn on my phone, and there’s a text from my dear friend Seamus. He’s been letting me park my van at his house in Portland while I’m in Alaska.
“Your van got broken into last night,” the text reads. “They smashed the back window.”
My heart stops, and I dribble toothpaste into the sink. I live in that van. Most of what is valuable to me is in there.
“Did they steal my bike?” I text back. “Or any of my gear?” I’d taken one wheel off my bike and packed it under the bed platform where it fits just so if you twist the handlebars and sort of jam it in there, and then I’d stuffed all of my gear and clothes around it. To get my bike out of the van would be (is) a huge pain in the ass, requiring lots of tugging and swearing.
“Your bike is there,” says Seamus. “I think your gear is here too? I don’t know. I can’t tell what they took. The back window’s gone, though. What should I do?”
I’m shaking with adrenaline. In one hour I board a tiny plane to Bettles, Alaska, a wee village in the arctic of western Alaska, and then an even smaller plane to Pingo Lake, near the headwaters of the Noatak. In one hour I lose cell phone reception and I won’t have it again until we finish this trip, which could take up to 25 days. Why does this always happen? ALWAYS. Whenever I am leaving for a stretch in the wilderness there is some huge, stressful terrible thing that I must manage at the last moment. What is it with, like, energy and, like, the universe, that makes this happen?
But my friends are the kindest people on earth and within thirty minutes it’s been figured out- Seamus, like the fucking angel that he is, will take my van into a shop to get the window replaced. This afternoon even! Allison volunteers her mom’s land in West Linn, just outside of Portland, as a place to keep the van after it’s been fixed. And Muffy, even though she’s working seven days a week right now ahead of her own upcoming trip, will drive it out there.
By the time I board the first tiny plane to Bettles, I am both shaking with adrenaline and dizzy with gratitude. Thank fucking god for my friends. I wouldn’t actually be able to do anything that I do, ever, without them. A lifestyle of vandwelling/hiking/whatever is not so much a life of total freedom as a life of total dependence on favors from people that you know. Can I mail this box to your address? Can I park my van in your driveway? Can I organize my gear in your house? Can I shower here? Will you help me handle this logistical thing while I am far, far away? And on. And on. And on.
We step out of the plane in Bettles, Alaska to cold rain. All our gear is loaded onto a pickup by a man who says nothing and keeps almost looking at us but then looking away at the last second. I wonder if living in this village makes a person unbearably shy? We follow the pickup across the dirt airstrip to the bush plane company, which is run out of a small log cabin, and schlep our gear onto the front porch, out of the rain. There’s a shitter behind the cabin and next to that a shipping container, which holds the large boxes we shipped here in advance- our boats! Inflatable kayaks from Aire. I have never done boat stuff so I feel like I can’t fully appreciate how nice these kayaks are, that we’re about to use- but I’m going to try. We add our deflated, folded up boats to the mountain of gear on the porch. Inside the log cabin it’s warm and toasty, with a table and chairs, a rack of wilted paperbacks to borrow, and one end is a small store where you can buy a $3 soda or a $6 can of spam. A few other men, the pilots I think, filter in and out, pouring themselves cups of coffee. They’re all wearing what I’ve started to think of as “Alaska Working Man”- some combination of carharts, boots, camo and plaid. With a baseball cap. Everyone in rural Alaska dresses this way, including the women. It’s like its own gender, unique to rural Alaska. These men (who are the pilots?) also seem really shy, and don’t say much. I start gathering information- what time are we leaving? Maybe 4. If we can fit you on the plane today. Where will we be dropped off? Originally we’d planned on 12 Mile Slough, but they mutter something I don’t understand about flooding and mud and say Pingo Lake, which is 10 miles further west. Where can we pick up our steel bear cans? They wave their hands in a general direction, and we head outside.
The park service building for Gates of the Arctic National Park is right behind the log cabin, on what seems to be the second of three stretches of dirt road that make up Bettles, whose small peeling houses hunker down, quiet in the cold rain. Inside the park building it’s warm and spacious, with a huge map of the Alaskan arctic that takes up an entire wall, a lending library of Alaskana, and flush toilets! The young ranger there is kind and chatty, although she seems a bit surprised when we tell her our plan, to paddle nearly the entire Noatak river.
“That’s just… that’s just a long way,” she says. I start to second guess myself in my head. I am new to boats, I have no yard stick with which to measure things. Who am I to say what’s possible?
A small shed next to the park service holds the bear cans- shelves of every possible size of can, from small plastic bearvaults to knee high steel cylinders. Twenty five days of food is a lot, and I end up taking one knee-high steel cylinder and two plastic bearvaults, an astonishing amount of can. In the eastern Brooks we had only ursacks to protect our food and, if I were to do this trip again the same time of year, I wouldn’t bring anything at all- I’d just sleep with my food, and that would be enough. But for the Noatak river we ARE bringing cans, and not just because they’re required by Gates of the Arctic. We’re bringing them because- here’s one of the most useful things to know about bears- bears go where the food is. That might mean salmon, or berries, or small town dumpsters, or established campgrounds where food gets left out. In the eastern Brooks in June close to the continental divide there is very little food for bears, and they just aren’t there. The same will go for the first part of our trip, in this last bit of July. But the salmon start running in the western part of the Noatak in late July/early August, and then the grizzlies will appear in great numbers along the banks, fishing at all hours, stuffing themselves and frolicking in the warm sunshine. Hence the bear cans.
We schlep our bear cans to the porch of the log cabin and now, now we REALLY have a lot of gear. Not just because of the cans and the 25 days of food but because, since we won’t be carrying anything on our backs, we both have quite a few luxury items, in addition to our usual gear as well as gear for the river (dry suit, PFD, dry bags, paddling gloves, paddle leash, carabiners, cam straps, pump and boat repair kits, etc). I have two pairs of pants, a pair of shorts, two fleece layers, my down puffy, two long sleeve shirts and a short sleeve shirt, four pairs of socks and an extra pair of shoes. I also have my kindle and a large solar charger. Bunny’s luxury items are a freestanding tent, an REI camp bed, down camp booties, lots of warm layers, a small camp chair, three bladders of box wine, four tins of chewing tobacco (grizzly brand), a waterproof bluetooth speaker, a collapsable camp bucket, and twelve joints. We laugh at the sheer abundance we’re bringing with us into the wilderness as we put our food in the cans and get everything in order, but also Bunny looks a bit concerned.
“It’s going to be hard to fit this all on the boats,” she says, standing to survey the mess of things on the porch.
“Will it be too heavy for them?” I ask, again astonished by how little I know.
“Probably we can make it work,” says Bunny, as she dumps another armload of food into her steel bearcan. “I guess we’ll have to.”
It’s afternoon when we load everything onto the small float plane parked at the makeshift dock on a lake nearby- our stuff as well as things for a group that our pilot is resupplying at Pingo Lake.
The inside of the plane is ancient, black metal and analog dials from the 1950s. Apparently, the US stopped making float planes, and many other kinds of tiny planes, after WWII. Rural Alaska is still dependent on float planes and other tiny planes, though, so people have had to make do.
“The props and the engine are new, that’s what matters,” the pilot says to us as he puts on his headset and the propeller starts to spin. I put my own headset on and watch as our plane begins to move across the water, sending up waves in its wake. Then there’s an almost imperceptible shift and we’re in the air, levitating above the water, growing steadily higher. What a world!
Soon we’re soaring above the Arrigetch peaks, several passes of which were part of our original route. I look down in awe, grateful and amazed for a chance to see them from this perspective. Sheer talus ridges as well as smoother ones that look like they’d make good walking, deeply cut drainages with their white, boulder-strewn rivers. I imagine myself walking over all of it, and a longing blooms in my heart. Another year!
Manuel and Lucas are from Switzerland, and they walked to Pingo Lake all the way from the US/Canada border. These are the two Swiss guys who Kirk dropped off ten days ahead of us, and whose progress Kirk relayed to me right before I decided to bail on the first half of the route! They’re the other group, besides us, who set out to do the entire Brooks range traverse this year! The realization sets in as we pull heavy gear out of the plane, and toss it to them on the shore of Pingo Lake. Our boats, our bear cans, their drybags and boat. What irony, that all four of us are here at once! After unloading our gear the floatplane disappears into the sky, leaving only the silence of the open tundra behind. The rain has stopped and the sun has come out, and Manuel and Lucas tell us about their trip so far as we all unfold and inflate our boats- they have a Soar Pro Pioneer inflatable canoe, rented from Fairbanks. This is day 42 for them- they started on June 2nd. They both work as mountaineering guides in the Swiss alps, and Manuel is sponsored by Patagonia. They’re 25 and 24 years old. (You can read about their journey on their website here– use google translate to make it english.) They had brutal conditions for the entire first month of the hike, this year of late snow and epic, flooding rain- they were postholing on passes that would normally be bare in June, and ice climbing waterfalls to get over others. They built fires for warmth each night, and several times they ran out of food after having to hunker down in their tent for days to wait out the storms that just never stopped coming. Manuel, who is six feet tall, describes several of their river crossings as “hip deep”. Lucas fell in the river twice. To save weight, between them they have one tent, one smartphone on which they listen to podcasts with a double jack, one cooking pot, one stove, and- one fork.
It’s so fun to talk to them, to compare notes and experiences. I show them our route on gaia, and Manual zooms in, pointing out their most tricky passes on the screen, and the places where their route differs from ours. I feel more and more certain, as they tell their stories, of my decision to bail on the first half of the route this year, when the weather was so awful. Hearing of what they went through I feel certain that if I hadn’t bailed when I did, I likely would’ve bailed soon after. Or a dozen times after that. Now the sun is out, warming us, and I feel so much gratitude to be here, in what might finally be good weather, on this river part of the trip, the sure bet.
“Are you two so excited to be on the river, now?” I ask them.
“Yes,” says Manuel. “We’ve been looking forward to it, calling it ‘the cruise’”.
Once our boats are inflated and our tents pitched, Manuel and Lucas make a small fire and we sit around it, cooking dinner and enjoying the shared camaraderie. They brought twenty days of food, as they also weren’t sure how long the Noatak portion would take. None of us knows how far we’ll be able to go each day- what will the current be like? Will there be a headwind? (And me- what will it even be like to paddle?) But it’ll be fun to see them now and then, if that’s what ends up happening.
It is so, so good to finally lay down in my tent at the end of the day. The sun is out, beating on the thin cuben fiber and turning the tent into a greenhouse, but I don’t even care. I feel comforted by the warm sun, buoyed by it. Arctic summer, here at last? Better late than never? I put an extra shirt over my face and drift off, the heavy stillness of the tundra gathered around me like a blanket.