188 miles paddled
The sun is shining right on my tent and it’s too hot to sleep for the longest time. Then finally I fall into a deep sleep and I dream that I’m magically gifted an RV that initially looks like a mess but, once inside, it unfolds into an enchanted treehouse-style home and I know that I’ll finally have a place to live forever. I wake up feeling sort of sad. I know there’s no real certainty under the sun and stability is a myth but still.
I’m groggy this morning. The enchanted river is still right where we left it, though, slogging along siltily, and we get to play boats again. I love packing up my little rubber boat with its ridiculous steel bear barrel strapped to the front, pushing away from the gravel bank, jumping in my boat with a splash and paddling furiously to get back into the channel in the middle before I’m sucked back onto the gravel. I love this overcast morning with its cool clouds and the mosquitoes that come all the way out to the middle of the river to hunt me.
Yesterday we saw a spot in the river coming up called “Okak bend” and we’ve been pondering it ever since. There aren’t many named features out here, at least names that were also recognized by the white people who made our USGS maps in 1973, and we’ve been puzzling over why this particular bend in the river might be notable enough to have a name. It’s a bend so sharp it almost makes a loop, but we’ve had plenty of those. Are there rapids? Is Okak someone who lived in a cabin at the bend? Is the cabin still there? I wonder as I stare at the clouds and let my boat drift on the water. This land is full of mysteries. I appreciate so much that Alaska is still a land where knowledge is not held in books or on the internet, but by the people themselves. I bet if I asked someone in the village of Noatak, which we’ll at the end of our journey, they’ll know the meaning of the name.
There is a hydraulic in Okak bend. It’s roiling and loud and it pulls me towards it as the river turns back on itself, but I throw my weight into my paddles and manage to go around it. It might’ve been fun to go over, but I don’t fuck around out here with rapids that could be hiding big rocks. I just don’t have enough experience, you know? I still don’t quite understand what’s safe, and what’s not. Then the river becomes gentle again. We absorb the Makpik and the Anisak rivers, and the Noatak grows so large, a flat grey thing stretched across the earth, that it starts to low key give me anxiety. I just feel so small on it in my little boat, like an insect riding a leaf. How far across is this river now?! I try not to think about it.
We’ve been snaking through green open country with a massive blue sky with creampuff clouds for several days but starting tomorrow we should be entering mountains again. And then something that looks like a canyon on the map? I wonder what this massive river will do in a canyon? I try not to think about that either.
We camp on a stretch of sand in lieu of dreamy flat tundra, bolstering our tent stakes with large rocks. There are grizzly tracks everywhere, as big as dinner plates, but still no sign of the bears themselves.