Archive for the ‘NOATAK RIVER’ Category

I’M JUST NOT A RIVER RAT

August 29, 2010

“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.

NOATAK RIVER VALLEY, GATES OF THE ARCTIC NP, 2010

August 23, 2010

This was on “The List” for 25 years, and I finally decided it was time to see this country.  (Click here for pictures!) I originally wanted to see the “Gates,”  two mountains for which Gates of the Arctic National Park are named.  No people signed up for the trip, so I went to the Noatak, where nobody signed up, either.  Ended up doing it custom with one guide.

We originally were going to fly in on a Helio Courier, but Fairbanks was so socked in we flew SOUTH (wrong way), around the clouds and had to stop in Bettles to refuel.  Then we flew in, one shortcut not open due to clouds (they fly VFR, visual and not instruments, so we backtracked to the Alatna River, flew up, past familiar area  I had been, like Arrigetch Creek, and then popped through Gull Pass, down Lucky Six Creek, landing at a sandbar about 2 km west of the creek.  Landing on a sandbar in a small plane is an interesting experience!  We were at 67 36 N. and 155 15 W.Once the pilot left, we were on our own, and started upstream or east, crossing 12 mile creek in deep water.  We linked arms, and the idea is not to stare at the water but let your feet find the bottom while you look at the shore.  Otherwise, the rushing water really disorients you.

After another mile, we set up camp under threatening skies.  The skies generally threatened during most of the trip, but it tended to rain harder at night.  We walked near the river, with typical Alaskan hiking–tussocks, climbs of 30 m or more, drops into brush calling “Mr. Bear!” in case a bruin was present.  There aren’t a lot of trees except in the drainages, and the ground is wet because permafrost limits the depth of absorption of water.  We camped near the river that night.

The next day, we moved as far east as we would get.  The Sun broke through, and my skin over my left achilles tendon broke down, necessitating first moleskin then moleskin with duct tape.  That held, even during some stream crossings.  We passed Lucky Six Creek and got into remarkably good hiking terrain for Alaska–2 miles per hour rather than 1.  We camped about 16 miles from where we started, walked another mile upstream to look (or try to look) at 2700 m Mt. Igepak, which we saw sort of through the clouds.  Did see a bear in the mountain.

The return was above the river, and I picked up one bear trying to root something out of the ground.  It was too far away to know if s/he was successful.  The fifth day we saw a third bear in the grass, about 75 feet away.  That prompted a “Go away!,” which these bears usually do.  He did.  We made it back to 12 mile creek, crossing at much lower water.  Interesting that twice we heard loud rockfalls.  This area is geologically active!

On the next day, we finished, set up camp, and welcomed a second guide and Calvin, a physician about 20 years my junior.  We got along great.  We dayhiked about 500 m vertical up to a ridge, with river views somewhat obscured by …rain!  Alaska, like aviation that is such an integral part of the state, is terribly unforgiving of neglect or carelessness.  I have camped with a sub-optimal waterproofed tent.  No more.  I literally painted the stuff on my tent last winter.  I store everything inside the tent or the vestibule, and I now pack everything first, saving the tent for last, so I have the pack closed up before I have to take it out in the rain.  The pack cover then covers it while I strike the tent.

The river had a 4 knot current, clear if it hasn’t rained for a while, muddy if it has.  We paddled and floated down to the Pingo, which is a boil on the Earth’s surface.  The pingo has expanding ice underneath and is a mound about 60 m high and probably 500 m circumference.  It was full of “sik-siks,” the Eskimo name for the Arctic Ground Squirrel, which sounds that way.  The rocks were covered with a dust so fine that it looked like gold spray paint!  We hiked back to the boats and continued a total of about 15 river miles to Kugrak Creek, where we set up camp for 2 days.  Mike and Ramona had a tent; Calvin and I had our own tents.  Because I had backpacked, my tent was a good deal smaller.  One advantage of river trips is the ability to carry more gear.

We spent two nights at Kugrak, dayhiking about 5 km up stream past several alpine lakes with Pacific Loons.  We stopped at a large cottonwood grove with almost an artesian water spring flowing out from all around it into the stream.  I was amazed at how large the trees were a degree above the Arctic Circle.  One night in our camp, Calvin turned around and exlcaimed, “Bear!” Not twenty yards away, a sow was looking at us; she turned and led 3 cubs, one at least a second year male, across the stream continuing down river.  I grabbed the first piece of photographic equipment I could find, which happened to be my camera.  I’d rather have used the camcorder, but bears wait for no man!

From Kugrak, we went down stream several more miles, watching chub salmon spawn and camping on the south side of the river.  We climbed 700 m up to the top of one of the mountains near the campsite, with a splendid view of the valley east and west of us.  Good thing we got that in, because the barometer dropped like a stone after that and we spent the next day in the tents in pouring rain.  The good news was we didn’t have to go anywhere that day and the barometer slowly started to rise (about 0.01 inch an hour).  The bad news was little to do except during the rain breaks.

We paddled the rest of the way to a campsite across from the Lake Matcharak portage, where Calvin and I were fascinated by a caribou skeleton with some nerves and identifiable ligaments (ACL and PCL) still present.  We portaged into Matcharak, and hoped for a pickup the next day, as scheduled.  While the weather on our side of the Continental Divide was fine, it was not so good in Bettles, and the Beaver pilot unable to get through the two possible passes (Gull, which comes down Lucky Six Creek) or Portage (which comes down Portage Creek).  Brooks Range flies VFR, and these passes were socked in.

I wasn’t at all sure about the next day, either, for it still looked cloudy to the east.  We were so far west, however, that we had no good sense of the weather in Bettles or on the passes.  In mid-afternoon, the plane came, we loaded up, dropped Mike and Ramona off about 25 km up another stream where they would continue on Rough Mountain Creek.  We then continued up to the Nigu River, picking up two hunters, then flew low over the Alatna Divide, coming straight down the Alatna, past  Arrigetch Creek where I had once hiked, past Takahula Lake, where I had once paddled, landing at the float pond in Bettles.