Paddling in the Arctic Alaska Noatak River


Torches and stranglers, Pingos and Palsas. These are words that I don’t know, but that I’m starting to pronounce here on the Noatak River in Alaska. Here in this bucket-list Alaskan adventure, my canoe paddles are biting into the water and the afternoon breeze is blowing through the low pastures.

The Pingo, I learned, is like an ice bubble blown by a glacier a long time ago. It is visible for miles and the 70-foot-high hill shines like a black light at a very, very good party.

Every landscape here in Alaska speaks two languages, words that only correspond to this massive Arctic landscape. When a wolf howls near our camp at 1:30 in the morning and his Solitary cry echoes from four or five different mountains, I must imagine that he speaks the other language of this place, the language that this country keeps for the most part for itself.

This is the language I came here to learn.


The Noatak River flows from a watershed that gathers around the double pointed peaks of the mountain. Igikpak, rises to 8,500 feet (2,591 m) in the Brooks Range, somewhere around 67 degrees north latitude.

It’s above the Arctic Circle, which means the sun isn’t setting tonight, but about the time the wolf starts howling, the Sky will take on a pale sapphire glow, a soft color that reminds me a bit of the shells on the wild beaches.


It is not easy to get to the Noatak, which is part of its beauty. You need to get to Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska, and then take a small plane to Bettles — a small Lodge, a few houses and a long runway in the middle of nowhere.

Then, return to a seaplane for the last hour or so to pass through the gates of the Arctic, more than 8 million acres of protected wilderness.

Alaska Discovery, one of the oldest adventure travel companies in the state, organizes trips on the Noatak twice a year, and this is what they have to offer.

Our Guides, Jeff and Mo, have the air that any good river guide has: a pure skill wrapped in absolute relaxation. You know these people tape up their cuts and laugh while doing it.

The National Park Service describes the Noatak as “one of the largest mountain-surrounded river basins in North America with an intact ecosystem.”

This is the language of the government, and what it means When we push the five canoes into the muddy current of the Noatak is that the pristine mountains around us are rolling, covered with tundra preparing for winter.

The bearberry has a bright magenta tone, the banks are dotted with white flowers the size of pinheads, and every night horsetails — which look like bamboo raised by a seriously crazy bonsai artist-make a perfect bed for tents.

The river is mostly Class I and II water — shallow or just enough current to make paddling a little easier, as our canoe line is starting to expand.

At first, there is a lot of discussion between the boats, comments about the landscape and the life left behind, but it is not long before the silence of the river takes over.


At the beginning of the afternoon, the whispers seem strong and we are looking for ways to cushion our paddle strokes ourselves.

This is not an unusual group for this type of trip: highly educated (three nuclear physicists) and well traveled (I, the travel writer, was in fewer places than any of the other nine people).

Most of you have chosen this trip because Alaska Discovery is part of Mountain Travel Sobek and you have lived adventures around the world with them.

But the real attraction is the Arctic itself. It has something to do with the way the sun still leans and burns long after the rest of the world has set.

It illuminates the tundra in a golden hue that matches the fur tone that I saw on the backs of barren grizzlies when they are fat with fish.

We’ve all been to the Arctic before, we all know we’ll be back, so at lunch on a gravel bench covered with caribou tracks, we talk about the other arctic rivers Alaska Discovery Runs — the Hulahula, the Kongakut, the Sheenjek — and think about other summers to come.

What does this have to do with being so far up north? Paul says it’s because the Arctic is always exotic, says Milt, “the light, the animals, a view that is not muffled by the trees. Endless and empty views.”


But here it is far from empty. One day I stay at Camp while everyone is hiking — the trip alternates between paddling days and hiking days, which gives us the opportunity to see as many sides of the Arctic as possible.

I listen, look for a key to decipher the landscape’s own language and discover how full this place is.

The silent and constant roar of the buzzing insects is like a sound platform that holds back the chirping cry of a red-throated loon, followed by the splashes of the bird walking on the water.


A brown butterfly, whose wing edges are drawn in the color you see in old barns just before they fall, stops to see my dirty river socks, while a crow flies by, a black stripe against the yellow mountains.

Everything is trying to deprive the incredibly sapphire sky of a last bath of sunny nutrients.

Along the river, I see sandpipers and Arctic ground squirrels. The dall sheep are searching the cliff in front, and about an hour ago, something very big – bear? Caribou? elk?

There are signs of the three on the muddy bank of the river – loaded across the river, out of the water, and was gone before I could even get up.

When the walkers return, they are out of breath: “The musk ox was so close that we could smell it.”

Some kind of horse smell, they say, when Mo, who turns out to be a genius with a four-burner camping stove, starts having dinner.

We’ve been on the river long enough, in this other world, that no one worries when Mo and Jeff look at a faulty gas valve with a lighter in their hand.

“I think what reminds me,” says Eliot, as we prepare a Dessert made with Arctic sapphireberries, which have a fine and slightly bitter flavor, “is that the Brooks chain makes me feel small and insignificant. I think that’s what we need.”

In the endless twilight, physicists spend about an hour measuring the temperature of the river.

One’s high-tech thermometer says 57 degrees; another says 59, so there’s a long discussion about the discrepancy.


When most people think of the Arctic, they think of snow, ice and polar bears, but that’s only the smallest fraction of things.

We all have very cosy clothes with us, but at Camp we wear T-Shirts every morning and there is a run on sunscreen.

I’m getting the deepest tan of my life here, and I have raccoon eyes because I put my sunglasses on every waking hour.

Before turning for the night, the mountains are now shining like beating hearts, the river offers a gift that is better than a lullaby: the fresh tracks of a bear cub following its mother.

Mom’s tracks are about five inches wide, which means she’s a pretty big bear. The boys are smaller than my dog’s.

In the morning, the canoes are back in the river, the sunlight makes our clothes washed by the river shine like Vegas Lounge Singers. I dip my hands into the cold water and watch a sand crane, its long legs like a streamer dragon, fly.

After four days of paddling, my arms feel stronger than ever, and the striking techniques that seemed almost foreign at the beginning of the trip are now pure reflexes. We eat the kilometers of the river like a good banquet.

“I don’t know what day it is today or how long we have been here, and I don’t care,” Jan says after setting up Our Camp. “I just want to be here, record all this.”

I look up and see Eliot — an international health consultant — and two of our three nuclear physicists making the evening garbage fire.

Enough IQ points to start a new country, and these three guys are standing over the burning food wrappers and smiling like children at their first camp.

Last night, we are on the shores of our takeaway lake, everyone is afraid and waiting for the arrival of the plane to the south tomorrow.

We have spent 10 days without the sounds of the modern world, and the loudest sound we will hear tonight is the cackling loons screaming on the shores of the lake.

I get out of my tent around 2 a.m., and the Moon, which has risen completely and has an improbable red tint and split the crevice between two mountains a few hours ago, has not gained so much altitude, but has slipped in the sky like a Pinball machine.

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