356 miles paddled
I fall into a deep blackness on my bunk in the ranger cabin until nearly 8 a.m. and wake up groggy and happy with sleep. The river is still huge, today, it still seems slow but still scoots us right along.
A storm arrives midday and the whole world turns to water; the air is water, the sky is water, the ground below us is water. I rotate in my little boat in the storm, paddling furiously to avoid the flood-flung spruce trees that have become sweepers along the bank and then dropping my paddle again as water rises up from below and comes down from the sky, feeling awed and a little overwhelmed. We’ve reached the part of the map where the river looks like a french braid that’s come undone in the wind and we can only hope we’ve chosen right at each split- that our channel won’t peter out, turn to shallow gravel or a lake. In the afternoon we begin to see buildings in the distance, up on a bluff above the river- Noatak village! Good god, humans exist! I figure on my map how many miles until the village- seems like we’ll reach it once we’ve gone 39 miles, which at our pace will take until about 6:30 p.m. Except at 6:30 we’re on a massive channel- what seems to be the main channel- and there’s just spruce forest on either side, no village to be seen. I look on Gaia and dang! We’re actually in the wrong channel- Noatak village is a half mile and one huge channel to the north. If we’d picked the right channel the river would’ve taken us right to it but instead, we’re here.
We pull off onto a small beach and study the map. How do we get over there? If we continue downstream we’ll just be past it. We can’t backtrack. And we don’t want to portage our heavy, laden boats north over a half mile of island covered in willows and spruce forest, to the channel across from which the village sits. The problem is that the channels of the Noatak have changed significantly since 1973, as wild rivers are wont to do, but the maps have not. So without a current map of the way the river is- does this even exist? Since it often floods and moves around? How to get to a specific spot is a guessing game, a shot in the dark. Often we’ve found ourselves in large main channels that aren’t even on the map, and looked for mapped channels only to discover they’ve become dry riverbeds, full of gravel and young willows.
So we leave our boats on the beach and walk, propelled by our longing for town food, other humans, and whatever other luxuries Noatak might offer. We find a sandy wash that cuts across the island, marked with the tracks of bears, wolves, birds and creatures we can’t identify, and soon we’re standing on the other side of the island, facing a deep channel across from which is a steep bank and on top of that, the small houses of the village.
There’s the whine of ATVs as a group of 4 wheelers crests the bluff and cruises down to the edge of the water to meet a motorboat that’s just pulling in. People hop out of the ATVs, talking to each other, their voices carrying across the river, and I feel suddenly shy. It’s raining, and I’m growing chilled standing here, as the rain slowly soaks me. Bunny and I talk about maybe flagging someone down, to try and get a ride across in a boat. It’s 8 p.m., though, and I’m weak with hunger and fatigue.
“Let’s camp and find a way to go over in the morning,” I say. “I’m tired.”
“Yeah,” Bunny says.
We see the grizzly around 9 p.m., when we’re making dinner. It’s on the other side of the channel from us, making its way down the opposite bank. I stir my noodles as I watch it meander. The salmon are jumping like crazy and the bear is fishing, no doubt.
“That grizzly better not swim the river and come over here,” says Bunny.
“No way it will,” I say. But then, it does. The current is strong but then, so is the bear, and in no time it’s across, disappearing into the woods on our island about a quarter mile downstream of us.
“Dammit,” says Bunny. “Now there’s a bear on our island.”
“It’s ok,” I say. “The bears are scared of us. There’s no reason for it to come into our camp.” I reassure myself that this is true when I crawl into my sleeping bag a bit later, exhaustion overtaking me. It is, right?