“Did you see the bear?” says Bunny.
“What?” I say. It’s 3:30 a.m., and I just woke up on account of my need to pee.
“It was pushing my boat!” says Bunny. “I thought you were moving the boats up higher in case the water came in. But it was a grizzly, shoving my boat! Then it went over to our bear cans. I started to get out of my tent and it heard me and ran away.”
“Dammit!” I say. I try to calm myself. The bear is gone now, you’ll be ok, I tell myself. It was scared and it ran away. You’ll be safe. You can go back to sleep.
But of course I can’t. I toss and turn in the grey light until 6:30 a.m., listening to the rain falling on my tent and the gentle lapping of the river. I’m thinking about giving up and packing my things when I hear the thunder of footsteps and then loud huffing and grunting, circling my tent.
“Bunny there’s a bear,” I say, medium loud. The last thing I want is for a bear to attack my while I’m IN my tent, unable to spray it, so I take the safety off my bearspray for the first time and undo the flap, crawling out of the tent. The grizzly startles and runs away- and then I realize that there are actually TWO bears. The other I can’t see but it’s crashing through the willows, in front of the first. The first bear has slowed to a stroll and it pauses a couple of times, looking back over its shoulder, and then melts into the willows as well.
“Dammit!” I say again. “They’re not even scared!”
“Fuck this campsite,” says Bunny, from within her tent. “Let’s get out of here.”
As I crouch in the rain, shaking with adrenaline and exhaustion, packing up my wet tent, I think of what the rangers said when we were planning this trip. Bears along the Noatak aren’t an issue, they said, until the salmon start running. And then they really, really are.
We pack everything away, pile our gear onto our boats and then walk across the island again to the channel opposite the village, with the intention of flagging down someone to give us a ride across. Once there we stand in the rain, dejected- the bustling village of last night has transformed into a quiet, sleepy town, and there is absolutely no one about. We walk up and down the bank for a while, looking for a solution to our conundrum. And then suddenly Bunny, who is brilliant with logistics, has it.
“This slough is actual flowing upstream,” she says, putting her foot into a narrow body of water that runs parallel to the channel we’re trying to cross and which we’d assumed flowed OUT from said channel, not IN to it, on account of how backwards that would be. I wade into the water, scarcely believing, and wanting to feel it for myself. I watch in amazement as my shins create tiny ripples against the subtle force of the current.
“That means it’s coming from the bottom of the island, and it loops all the way around, back up here!” I say. “If we can find where it starts, we can follow it to this spot!”
And we do, paddling down the other side of the island until the spot where the slough begins and then down the slough as it, somewhat amazingly, turns and heads east in the opposite direction of the river, eventually dumping us into the channel on which Noatak sits. The slough is slow and we have to drag our boats over gravel and sandbars a few times but then suddenly we’ve made it, we’re hauling our boats up onto a steep bank that’s reinforced with concrete alongside a cluster of motorboats and throwing off our PFDs, triumphant.
“What are you doing?” says a little boy. He’s holding a small pole, from which dangles a pointed wooden square on a length of cord.
“We paddled here,” I say.
The boy runs to the water’s edge, and drags the wooden square in the current. The front end pops up, and the back creates a wake. It’s a little boat! Another boy appears, and stares at us. He has the same toy. He edges closer, until he’s standing right in front of us. He’s wearing colorful rubber rainboots and a hoodie.
“Where did you come from?” he says. We point up the river. “We’ve been paddling for fourteen days,” we say. The boy runs off and joins his friends and they make their boats go, back and forth, back and forth in the current.
“The store’s that way,” says an Inupiat man on a 4-wheeler, smiling. Everyone here is Inupiat. It’s an Inupiat village- when white people appear, they know exactly who they are (paddlers) and what they want (the store). We’ve been wandering around for a few minutes amongst the small, colorful houses, not sure where to go and I thank him, grateful. It’s still raining and the village is quiet except for the thrum of the large generator on the edge of the bluff and the barks of massive, furry dogs, tied up in the yards. The store, a supermarket really, is housed in a huge grey building. Inside it’s wonderfully warm and bright, and aisles are packed with everything you could possibly want, or need to buy. The prices are alarming- $3 for an apple, $9 for a gallon of water- but I understand (everything is flown in on tiny planes from very, very far away) and I don’t care (I’m so hungry today, somehow). I think about the people who live here, though, as I put a banana, a bottle of water, a bag of doritos and a can of tamales in my basket. How do they afford to eat? I know that the Inupiat people do a lot of subsistence hunting and fishing, still- they have whales, salmon, seal, caribou, moose, berries and other things- but they also, justifiably, want to eat the same shit that everyone else in the western world gets to eat- ramen, soda, apples, frozen chicken nuggets. How do they afford it, though, in this village? It hurts my brain to think about.
“Do you know about paddling across the sound, to Kotzebue?” I ask an old man on the porch of the store. We’re watching the rain and I’m eating my doritos. I’d asked a few other people on the porch and they shrugged their shoulders, until this man appeared.
“Ask him,” they said, pointing at the old man in the flannel shirt with a baseball cap pulled low over his face who was slowly mounting the steps.
“No one’s done that in a long time that I know of,” says the man. “Except me, I did it five years ago.” He talks quietly, so quietly I have to strain to hear him above the roar of the generators. Everyone here talks quietly. He makes dramatic up and down motions with his hands. “The waves, they were like this. Sometimes it’s calm. But often the waves are like this.”
“How do you know if it’s calm?” I ask.
“When you get to the last island at the end of the river,” he says. “If it’s calm there, it’ll be calm all the way across the sound.”
“Do you know of anyone we could pay, to take us across in a motorboat?” I ask.
He thinks for a moment.
“No,” he says.
Bunny joins me with a bottle of mountain dew and a package of mini donuts and we eat, watching the rain. Every single person who walks by smiles at us hugely, and welcomes us to Noatak. I honestly didn’t expect people to be this friendly- I would’ve understood if they weren’t. This village isn’t set up for visitors- there isn’t a restaurant or an inn or anything really, except for the store. But people are really, really nice.
“There isn’t anyone here who can take us across the sound,” I say to Bunny. “And the waves could be high or not.”
“Yeah,” she says. We watch the rain drip off the roof of the store. The forecast predicts more rain. And the bears, oh my god the bears are here now in droves, fishing for salmon. It’s seventy miles between here and the sound, across which is Kotzebue, where we’d originally planned to fly out. The river slows considerably after the village, so probably at least three more nights, camping with the bears. The rangers told us that most people who paddle the Noatak river fly out of Noatak village. The reason one would go all the way to the sound would be if one was doing a traverse of the entire state, and wanted to be able to say that one had traveled of one’s own power all the way to the sea. But we’re not doing a full Brooks Range Traverse this year, after all, and in this way we are free.
“Do you want to just fly out of Noatak?” I ask Bunny. “There are flights every day, apparently.”
“Hell yeah,” she says.
At five p.m. we’re on a tiny plane above Noatak village, our boats deflated and stowed in back, our bear cans mailed away at the village post office. I watch as we follow the Noatak river as it meanders towards the sea, amazed at being able to see it from this perspective. I felt like I wasn’t able to take great photos on this trip- partly because I needed my hands to paddle and partly because the perspective in my boat was always the same- the lowest point. There weren’t dramatic mountains, and sunset was a strange affair that always happened when I was asleep and bled immediately back into day. But now I can see everything- the distant mountains, the shadows of clouds racing across the land, and the river in its full form- oh my god, the river- my heart aches with fondness for this river. The tundra turns to wetland with hundreds of tiny lakes that shine like coins as we near the ocean and then, suddenly, below us is the sea- milky green, brighter than the sun, breaking with waves and studded with fishing boats that look like children’s toys from this height. The Chukchi sea! And just south of us is the Bering strait! And over there, out of sight, is Siberia! I am flooded with feelings. I want to reinflate my boat, get back in, and paddle across the open ocean to Russia. How can a place that seems so far really be this close?
Kotzebue is a toy village, I decide from the plane. Colorful buildings in tidy rows on a splat of mud in the sea. On the ground a very real cab driver takes us across town, and I stare out the window at the mix of dilapidated log cabins, newer small houses surrounded in trash and broken snow machines, stark apartment buildings, and businesses that sell strange assortments of things.
The whole place feels like Siberia, which I guess it used to be. It’s also beautiful- a land outside of time, a wild eddy in the river of globalization, a place colonized and then forgotten so many times. The cab drops us at a large, bunker-like, white painted building that is apparently an inn. There are simple rooms off of a main hall, and a shared bathroom at the end. We get a room with two glorious beds and lace curtains that let in the good ocean air and I collapse with fatigue. I think about how before white people came here, this bit of land was a trading center for people from all over what is now Alaska, and maybe Siberia as well- numerous rivers from the east dump into the ocean here. I wonder what it would be like to paddle all off those rivers, to end up in Kotzebue again and again. Bunny sets out to find food but I’ll probably be broke until the end of time on account of how much I spent on this trip so I open the can of Tamales I got in Noatak, pour them into a bowl and pop them in the microwave. I have cell service in Kotzebue so I text Muffy. I can’t believe how soon I get to see her. I’m overjoyed, actually.
I feel grateful to be inside four walls tonight, away from the grizzlies. I feel grateful to be in a bed. I feel so grateful for this entire trip, and it breaks my heart that I’m leaving when I feel like I just got here. I crawl under the covers and put a shirt over my face against the nighttime sun, knowing that tonight, I will sleep. And then I do.