158 miles paddled
The Noatak has forgiven us for calling it slow. It rains for much of the night but the morning comes clear and painfully blue and the river is calm again, wide and gentle and full of peaceful eddies. The high is 70 degrees today, per the weather forecast from my inreach. I pack my snack drybag to the brim and get ready to party.
And by party I mean drift lazily in the current, letting my boat slowly spin and dreaming, dreaming. Low bluffs along the bank alternate with long stretches of flat, open land, all of it blanketed in tundra, everything an impossible green, little flowers, blueberries just beginning to ripen. Chunks of permafrost on the cut bank drop into the water, exposing thick veins of grey ice and releasing a smell like ancient fish. Gulls reel overhead. A caribou, its summer pelt mangy, thunders along the gravel bank and then plunges into the water, swimming across the river in front of my boat. It emerges on the gravel bank opposite and I see it shooka-shooka-shooka, just like a dog. An eagle cries to me from the top of the bluff. I watch for a clear stream entering the river- I forgot how, after a few days, silty water doesn’t quench my thirst anymore. I wonder when the salmon will start running, where the bears are, what other food they’re chasing right now, before the salmon come. It hits me, suddenly, how remote I am.
I’m hundreds of miles from the nearest road, by air. I’m a tiny speck floating in the endless wild tundra of western Alaska, with its clusters of mountains in the distance and beyond that, the sea.
We absorb the Culter river, which comes in flat, slow and aquamarine from the south. Now the Noatak is even larger. It stretches so wide it’s hard to tell its shape anymore, its bends and twists, until I’m right on top of them. Shapes in the distance distort. I’m at the lowest point in the land and yet always above what’s downstream. I paddle back and forth across the wide channel at each bend to follow the cut bank and otherwise, I drift. I look at the map, enchanted by the names of distant features. Siniktannevak mountains. Kilyaktalik peaks. Iggiruk mountains. What would it be like to spend a lifetime exploring this land? Ten lifetimes? I feel embarrassed by how much there is to learn and by how much of my life has already passed. Why did I waste so many days and hours on the meaningless stuff. Why do we all. I want to offer myself up humbly at the feet of this land. Give up everything. Absorb into some small village on the banks of a river. Disappear from everywhere else.
I am overwhelmed with the abundance around me, as I drift. I want to cry with gratitude. As I float slowly on the river watching the clouds I am enveloped in the love that radiates out from this wilderness, the quiet peace that says There’s enough, it’s ok, there will always be enough, everything will be alright.
That’s what we need more than anything right now, yeah? Someone with authority to tell us that everything will be alright. But who has that authority? Who is the highest authority in the land? When all our human idols have disappointed us, who is left?
The nature, that’s who. The nature has the best seat, the long view, she’s the only one who knows. She holds our face in her hands.
It’s ok, she says. Everything is going to be alright.