128 miles paddled
I know we shouldn’t have called the Noatak slow. The water rises in the night from the rain and just like that, it’s a different river; faster, frothier, more roiling, full of stronger currents and eddies. It’s constant work to paddle today- I can’t put my paddle down for more than an instant or the current starts to drag me somewhere I really don’t want to go. At one point the branch I’m in hurries around a sharp bend and just at the apex of that bend another branch, a large one, rejoins mine, creating an eddie so strong it almost swamps my boat. My steadfast rubber steed tilts, and water rushes over the side. In that instant, I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do. Which way should my boat be pointing?
“Oh shit oh shit oh shit!” I say, and lean away from the engulfing water, paddling furiously. My boat rights itself. An hour later Bunny and I stand on a gravel bank, finally putting our dry suits all the way on. The river is too wild today to fuck around.
“When you meet a strong eddy from an incoming channel like that the most important thing is to paddle as hard as you can,” says Bunny, as I struggle to pull the rubber neck gasket of my drysuit over my head. You put a beanie on and then you put your hair up in the beanie so the rubber can’t catch on your hair, and then you try and yank the gasket down over your skull. It’s so narrow, though. The experience feels like being born.
“You paddle as hard as you can to try and get up to the speed of the incoming water,” continues Bunny. “It’s like jumping out of a moving car.”
The neck gasket is strangling me. I swear it’s cutting off blood to my brain. I’m trying not to panic.
“Smooth the rubber,” says Bunny, as she straightens her own. “When it’s all bunchy it feels like it’s choking you.”
Oh. I straighten the rubber sleeve on my neck and now it’s just snug- not like it’s literally going to kill me. It makes sense that it’s tight, though. It has to make a watertight seal around my neck.
Stormclouds have been racing over the wide open tundra all day, dragging their lightdark skirts of rain. The storm hits right when my boat is stuck on some gravel and I drag my boat back into the deeper channel, the strong current pulling at my legs, as the world darkens and rain pummels the water around me. I get stuck on rocks multiple times a day- always in the shallow gravel banks that creep out into the river, though, not yet on one of the large boulders in the deep channel that I watch for like a hawk. The kind of boulder that sticks its top edge just above the surface of the water, creating a pourover or a small white crest that blends in with all the other small white wave crests until you’re right in front of it, the current sucking you towards it, and you realize, suddenly, what it is. I paddle around these large boulders in the deep water all day, my fingers crossed. Would I be ok if I hit one? Probably. Even if my boat flipped. I’m wearing a PFD and (sometimes) a drysuit- I could swim to shore. I could recover my boat. Everything would still be safely strapped inside. I think?
I’m amazed that my boat hasn’t popped yet, with how many times I get stuck on gravel every day. I really try not to, but it happens. Each bend in the river has a gravel bar that extends way out into the water, and the river bends every ten minutes or so. We’re constantly paddling back and forth across the wide channels to avoid them. How do people packraft? Aren’t those boats thinner than these? Are people just having to patch their shit like every day?
I’m so focused on paddling that I don’t really eat much all day, or drink much water. Neither does Bunny. I don’t look at the scenery except to steal an occasional glance at the clouds. Gotta focus on the water in front of me. I make a long playlist of podcasts on my phone and just let them play, tinny sound from the pocket of my PFD as I paddle hard around obstacles. We absorb the Aniuk river from the north, and the channel grows even wider. The silty grey water roils beneath me, deep and powerful beyond knowing, just beyond the edges of my tiny boat. I try not to think about it. My lower back hollers. My hands ache from gripping the paddle. At last, at 4:30, we pull off (and by pull off I mean you have to turn your boat upstream but angled towards land and paddle furiously for a long time until the current at last dumps you out, into an eddy) at a small gravel beach, above which there is a bench of tundra on which to camp. We’re both exhausted and shaky from low blood sugar. We could’ve stopped to take a break during the day, yeah, but usually there are chunks of time where you can drop your paddle and let your boat spin lazily and eat your snacks then. But not today.
The rain returns and we eat dinner in our tents, listening to it. My morale buoys as the food fills my stomach. I’m so happy to be here. I love the river. I’m having so much fun. I love boats!