Noatak river paddle day 2: systems

Mileage: 17

A cold grey dimness, a sort of precursor to full dark, has returned to the wee hours of the arctic night and I notice this when I wake up to pee in my double gallon ziploc bag. I shiver a little as I empty the ziploc onto the tundra outside my vestibule. I put on more layers and curl back into my sleeping bag, feeling grateful to have witnessed this dim ethereal hour, the purgatory between light and dark.

The warm sun wakes me and I make black tea and eat my granola in protein powder, all while sitting in my sleeping bag. Then up to sort my gear into various drybags on the boat. What will I need to access while on the river? What is my system? Do I have a system?

I don’t yet have a system for all this new gear, so I rig what seems fine and figure I’ll adjust it as I go. My huge steel bear can is strapped into the front, and my giant drybag is in the back, with smaller drybags clipped onto that. This will all stay in if the boat tips, right? Will the boat tip? I put my drysuit on for the first time and decide that I hate it (the neck seal legit feels like it’s strangling me/cutting off blood to my brain/making me lightheaded- is this normal?) and I finally decide to wear just the bottoms, tying the top half around my waist like a hoodie. Seems fine. We then have to carry our heavy loaded boats through a patch of swamp and willows to get the the cut bank where we’ll scooch our boats down into the Noatak. By the time we’re sitting swirling in the silty water like ducks it’s eleven a.m.

No matter, new gear means figuring out new systems means slowness. I’ll get faster.

Paddling is hard. But not in a way I’ve experienced before. The Noatak today is largely flatwater, some of it nearly as still as a lake and with quicker bits under the cut banks. We are chasing these quicker bits, slowly making our way back and forth across the large winding river as the cut bank switches sides. It’s a cool overcast day, cold when the wind picks up. I paddle while the bank waves its low willows at me and the mountains slowly roll by. I’m new at this, my form isn’t very good? Bunny has experience and is faster, she keeps getting far ahead until her boat is a tiny red speck in the huge river and then she has to pull into an eddy and wait for me. What do I do if I have to pee? I keep looking at the shore, wondering what it would be like to walk there. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss walking. I have a feeling I’m going faster than I could walk out here, though, even if it doesn’t feel like it. And besides, I sprained my ankle two weeks ago, right after returning to Portland from the first half of our trip. I was running on perfectly flat trail around Timothy lake, and I rolled it on nothing, as I often do. But instead of the usual mild stab of pain followed by nothing, there was a loud POP and pain so bright I crumpled to the ground in tears. Adrenaline kicked in and allowed me to walk the two miles back to my van, and then my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball. It’s still healing, so I shouldn’t be walking on it much at all. So it’s perfect that I’m in a boat. Kind of ideal, really. Still, the tundra is drier here, later in the summer, not the sopping mess we found in the eastern Brooks, and I imagine how soft and nice it would feel under my feet. Another year, another year.

my ankle the day I sprained it

I keep paddling. My shoulders grow sore and fatigued while the lower half of my body becomes stiff and cold. It’s not too bad, though. I have more layers that I can put on and I do- all of them- when we stop on a sand bar to take a break.

There’s lots of room for my legs in the boat- I can put them all the way straight, bend my knees, whatever. I realize that, in the flatwater, if I just stop paddling for a minute- to drink water or whatever- nothing bad will happen. My boat will slowly turn in the almost imperceptible current and the mountains will rotate like I’m on a merry go round, and I’ll be overcome with the urge to lay down in the bottom of the boat and go to sleep.

There are a few interesting bits of water this first day, with eddies and class 1 rapids and such. Just enough for Bunny to teach me very basic things. I feel super grateful that she has this knowledge. By 5pm my shoulders are cooked, and I decide to only paddle if I need to straighten my boat. I stare at the bank creeping past, and let it hypnotize me. The heavy grey clouds that drape the dramatic mountains have lightened to a bright white, and the cold wind has stopped. I am suffused with pleasure, although I can’t say why.

At 6:30 we pull our boats onto a small sandy beach to camp. Above the beach is a shelf of dry tundra, complete with wolf tracks and caribou bones, that is perfect for our tents. We cook dinner on the beach, joking about the amount of food and luxury items we have (and how we should’ve brought even MORE luxury items, now that we think about it) and then leave our bear barrels and kayaks on the sand and crawl into our tents where I sink back into the silence, my whole body unkinking on my sleeping pad, and then I am asleep.


We’ve raised $7,210 for Defend the Sacred AK so far! ($6,850 on the original fundraiser, and $360 on the new fundraiser I had to create when GoFundMe bought YouCaring and the YouCaring fundraiser became defunct on July 31.) This is so awesome!! My goal is to raise $10k total for this org by the end of the summer. Day three from the Noatak will go up on this blog as soon as the new fundraiser reaches $500- you can find the fundraiser here, or click the photo below.  And thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far!

Defend the Sacred AK Fundraiser