66 miles paddled
The sun is beating directly on my tent at 10pm when I’m trying to go to sleep, turning it into an oven. Ah, this is the arctic I was expecting. I lay naked on my neo air with my shirt over my face, drifting in and out of sleep, until around midnight when a curtain of dark clouds covers the sun and suddenly it starts to rain. Hard. The fabric of my tent rattles wildly. I’m all the way awake now. What if the river rises and our bear cans, which we set just a few feet from the water, drift away with all our food? What about our boats? We tied them to a willow, but still. What if the water rises a lot?
As soon as the rain lets up I put on my clothes and brave the mosquitoes to check on our stuff. Everything is fine. I drag the bear cans further up onto the beach, just to be sure. So much gear to be responsible for! It really makes me appreciate the minimalism of long distance hiking.
We sleep in on account of the late storm and it’s 10:30 by the time we’re shoving off. That’s alright, the river will take us where we need to go.
I’m learning so much about the Noatak. Today it meanders so strongly it almost turns back on itself, creating a loop, but stops just short of doing so. These meanders through this broad river valley slow the river immensely, making me feel like everything has become Lake Noatak, even though I know I’m still moving faster than I could walk on this terrain. Mounded dark clouds float along the horizon, trailing skirts of rain that are mixed with sunbeams. Distant stark mountains still have streaks of snow. The land closer to the river is gentle- low brown mountains that could be good walking or could be spongeswamp tussocks- you’ll never know until you’re there. The air is warm and I’m paddling in just my longsleeve, nevermind the splashes. The cut banks are like a layered slice of permafrost cake. I drift close to these cut banks, as that’s where the current is strongest. They smell of sulfur and earth and drop small stones into the water with a plunk as they warm in the sun. It’s a beautiful morning.
I snack and paddle, snack and drift. I think with amazement about how I’m in the arctic of western Alaska, floating all the way to the sea.
Even with it being Lake Noatak, by four p.m. we’ve gone 20 miles. We’re getting better at this. Bunny stops at a sandbar to let me catch up- she has more experience so is faster, and is always ahead- and reports that she saw a muskox in a tributary. A real muskox! Oh, they exist! Mythical beasts! We agree to paddle until six, and get back in our boats, shoving off from the gravel back into the silty swirl.
Then all of a sudden there are rapids. Real rapids.
It’s probably because the broad valley has become a broad canyon, or because the river is descending more now. Whatever the reason, one minute we’re in Lake Noatak and the next minute I’m paddling straight down the middle of rapids that splash me in my boat, each one larger than the last. Then I’m paddling as hard as I can at the last second to river left to avoid a large submerged boulder that creates what’s called a “hydraulic”, whatever that is. Then back to river right before the water goes into an undercut. Then straightening my boat right before it hits another set of rapids. A pourover the size of my boat passes harmlessly on my left as I go through these rapids. I didn’t even see that! And I missed it, luckily. Bunny’s boat goes right over it though- she makes it out unscathed. My face is hot and I’m shaking with adrenaline, but the rapids keep coming. This is fun. And terrifying. And fun.
Part of being a noob is not yet knowing what is actually dangerous, and what just seems that way. Each large rapid has me thinking: is this… death? But then my boat is fine, I am fine, everything is fine. And then there are real dangers that I’m likely not even aware of. Noob time is an exciting time, full of thrill and naivety and bliss.
We pull off onto a rocky beach at 5 because we are both exhausted from paddling as hard as we could for the last hour. Bunny rates the rapids as class 2+. That’s probably nothing to some people, but boy howdy was that exciting for me. There are more rapids ahead- white noise for our sleep tonight. We have bright evening sun for our dinner and I strip off my clothes and dunk in the water and then sit on the warm rocks, eating my soup. My hands and wrists are so weak from clutching my paddle that I can barely lift my spoon. It feels great.