317 miles paddled
I get really sucked into Stray City when I should be going to bed and by the time I finally drift off it’s after midnight. In the morning I wake, groggy and exhausted, and drink my tea while the bugs hum against the mesh of my tent. What even is the world?
Today we’re paddling through Noatak Canyon, which is beautiful in an understated way. There are some small rapids for excitement, and I play music on my phone for the first time on this trip- and it gets me so excited I’m paddling with all my might, feeling like I’m throwing up a rooster tail of water, when really I’m barely crawling along faster than the current. Sometimes I feel like I have control over where I go in the river and sometimes I feel like the river is huge and unfathomably powerful and could crush me in an instant, if it wanted to.
A headwind spins my boat merrily and the salmon jump all around, crashing back into the water with an alarming amount of noise. The mosquitoes are terrible- a cloud finds my boat and stays there, like stowaways in my personal airspace.
We gather the Kugururok river, which isn’t nothing, and then the Noatak is truly, hugely large- I was fooling myself when I thought it was big before. The river appears on the horizon always like a lake, now, and would seem completely still if it weren’t for the spruce forest, which burst into existence this morning, gliding by on the distant shore. I pull into an eddy, paddle to shore, yank my boat onto the rocks and drop the bottom half of my drysuit to pee, and as I pee I watch the river. And suddenly, from this perspective on the shore, I can see that it’s roaring, positively rushing past. A current that holds secrets. A current so deep and wide and powerful it could swallow you and you would disappear forever.
“I was just in that?” I think, as I pull up my drysuit. “It seemed so still when I was in my boat.”
Bunny, who is ahead, spots a tiny cabin tucked back in the forest and we pull off to investigate, scrambling up the bank and ducking into the woods. The cabin, like many structures in this remote corner of the world where building materials are hard to come by (to get a sheet of plywood here, for example, you’d have to ship it via a succession of smaller and smaller planes from the lower 48 all the way to the village of Noatak, and then travel upriver with it via motorboat for several days), looks dilapidated from a distance but once closer we can see that it’s been meticulously kept up for many decades. All the brush around it has been cleared away, there isn’t a scrap of trash, and firewood and discarded fuel drums are stacked in tidy, geometric piles. Bits of cord dangle from wooden racks in front of the cabin- a place to hang fish. Inside the cabin, which is made of worn, weathered scraps of wood, there is a sleeping platform, a woodstove, a small table and a folding chair. A handful of tools and supplies are lined up carefully on a small shelf, and a mildewed logbook rests just so on an old magazine. In the logbook are entries from folks who spent two weeks at a time here, doing subsistence fishing and hunting, and entries from NPS employees (we’re currently in Noatak National Preserve) who make the rounds of all the cabins here, checking up on them.
This cabin fills me with wonder similarly to the way Howarth’s did- the western idea of “wilderness” is a wilderness sans people, which is not actually representative of most of human history but rather represents a modern colonialist fantasy that we’ve projected onto these last bits of intact nature that also serves to erase indigenous history. We act as if indigenous peoples weren’t already inhabiting these lands for tens of thousands of years, as if they haven’t cultivated deep complex relationships, rooted in reciprocity, with the plants and animals and mountains and rivers. We act as though a wilderness without people is a thing preserved, when really, there is no way to quantify the largeness of what has, in most parts of North America, been lost. At least in Alaska in general (and here along the Noatak in the land of the Inupiat, in particular) not only are the nature and animals still intact but people can, and still do, live subsistence lifestyles, within that intact nature, and the beauty of something so simple as a small cabin in the wilderness here for any human who wants to come and catch their winter’s worth of fish- the idea of wilderness and humans not as separate concepts, but as interdependent ones- fills me an indescribable longing. Humans AND nature! The big wild nature, but with humans in it, living! What if, in the western world, we stopped seeing wilderness as something OTHER, and saw it instead as part of ourselves? What would happen then.
We shove our boats back into the current and we’re paddling again, the smol cabin swallowed by the forest. A few hours later, when we’re ready to stop and camp, we spot a couple more cabins up on a forested shelf on river right- newer looking ones- and stop to check those out. They’re park service cabins, tidy and sturdy looking, their windows shuttered. One of them is unlocked and Bunny decides to sleep inside. I cook my dinner inside, resting my alcohol stove on top of the woodstove, but it’s stuffy and too quiet indoors- I have grown used to the air and sound of mosquitoes- so I opt to pitch my tent in an open area at the edge of the forest, next to a well worn game trail. I’m in my tent reading when a large animal thunders up to me, stops, pivots and crashes away into the woods. Definitely a bear, likely using this game trail. The bear ran away and that’s chill but now I know I won’t sleep so I gather my things and head inside the cabin, climbing onto the bunk above Bunny’s and collapsing on the dusty mattress. It’s dim in here, the closest thing to dark we’ve had, and before I know it I’m asleep.