I’M JUST NOT A RIVER RAT


“Hey, Mike,” my guide, Mike Reitz, called out to me, just before our float plane dropped him and Ramona Finnoff off near the headwaters of Rough Mountain Creek in the western end of Gates of the Arctic NP, “you”ll love the flight up to the Nigu and back to Bettles.  The rivers are fantastic.”

An hour later, I didn’t think they were.  From 500 feet, the Nigu had a good gradient, and the rafters on it looked like they were having fun.  Above tree line, you could see wildlife for miles.  And I might have got a chance to see a musk ox, which would have been really special.  But I didn’t think I would enjoy the Nigu, and I had just spent ten nights camped in the Noatak valley river running and five before that backpacking.  Without a doubt, the backpacking was the best part, pretty as the river valley was.

I’m not nearly as experienced as the other Mike.  He spends his life outdoors in Alaska, carrying far more than I did on the backpacking trip, and walking a lot faster, and I consider myself pretty fast on the trail, even the non-trails, which are Alaska hiking.  To my credit, I’ve seen one place he hasn’t–the Arrigetch Peaks, and run one river he hasn’t–the Nahanni.  But he has been all over the “Gates,” although our backpack was in an area neither of us had been before.

I’ve done only 4 northern Alaska backpacks–2 in ANWR, the Arrigetch and the upper Noatak River valley.  I’ve run 40 miles of the Noatak River and maybe 25 of the Alatna.   I’ve canoed Takahula Lake.  All were nice, and my 16 days in Noatak country was special, but 4 more days of backpacking and no river running actually would have made a good trip even better.  The further upstream we went, the better the Noatak valley got, and the easier the hiking got, too, at least for Alaska.  Going 1 mph to 2 mph is a big deal in this country.  Four more days, and we could have gone to the source and back. 

The Noatak doesn’t get a lot of annual visitors.  Indeed, perhaps 1000 people see Gates of the Arctic NP in a year, our second largest, and the size of Switzerland.  Many of these visitors walk in from the haul road, not traverse its valleys or paddle its waters.  I bet maybe 20 see the Noatak every year.  So I’m not complaining.  I count myself very, very fortunate!  I’m just not a river rat.

Rivers in Alaska are great.  They have good current, the rapids are generally not too bad, and one can carry far more gear on a river trip, because most of the time it will be sitting in the boat with the person.  You can cover more territory, day hike on layover days, and never run out of water.  So why am I a foot soldier in this wilderness?

I just am.  I think it boils down to Sig Olson’s 1938 quotation of “sweat and toil, hunger and thirst, and the fierce satisfaction that comes only with hardship.”  I like water; I am an avid flat water canoeist.  Maybe it is the idea that I get a free ride on a river, and I don’t get one on flat water or under a pack.  I have to get from Point A to Point B under my own power, and that matters to me.  I like having all my gear with me, too, and when I reach a campsite, all I have to do is set the pack down by the tent site and put everything up.  Sure, I have to carry more weight, and yes, I don’t cover much territory.  But what ground I do cover, I know very well.  I can still see the large rock I sat on for a picture in the Noatak valley. Or the willow thicket we crashed through, all the while calling out for bears.  Or the bog we crossed, trying to get to drier ground.  Or the creeks, streams and small rivers we had to ford.  Or the bear, whose head poked out of the grass 25 yards from us, with no retreat possible.  Our feet were always wet, the bugs attacked us, and we had to rest periodically.  We had hills to climb, not current to move us.  But I have an intimate connection with the Earth when I backpack or canoe a lake.  I see a mountain alongside me, and I watch myself slowly pass by its landmarks, carefully noting them.  We heard two rockslides because we were near a mountain, not further away on the river.

But on a day hike, one can have all these adventures and hardships, too!  That is true.  And I like day hiking; I can cover a great deal more ground, which in my visiting of the national parks, has allowed me to cover more ground and see more.  But for extended trips, there is nothing like carrying my house on my back and covering all the ground myself.  Portaging a canoe means two trips at my age (it once meant one), one to carry the canoe, the other to carry the pack.  On Alaska river trips, there are inflatable boats to maneuver, which aren’t nearly as easy to carry as a canoe.  There is a lot more gear to carry, and travel in Alaska is difficult enough with a backpack let alone with all this gear.  While portaging is uncommon on Alaska river trips, loading and unloading the boats is a long involved process with strapping in the gear, as opposed to dropping a pack into the bow or stern compartment of a canoe.

Perhaps I should suck it up, for there are so many rivers in Alaska to run–the Nigu, the Killik, the Sheenjek, the Koyukuk, the Hulahula and the Kongakut, to name a few.  But there are also plenty of hikes in a place where there are no trails, just countless valleys to explore and new places to rest my head at night.  My feelings are my own; they are inherently mine.  Some of my best friends are river runners.  More power to them, for they love what they do.  More power to me, when I do what I love to do.

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