The Noatak by David Silcox
The Alaskan adventure, in 1978, was the descent of the Noatak River, and as we flew from Bettles Field to Williams Lake, a speck of water beside the upper origins of the river, we received an initial idea of the vastness and breathtaking splendour of the country through which we would be travelling.
Gradually, the contours of the land began to change, and the foothills and then the mountains rose up toward the plane. Now we were in valleys, with range upon range of mountains visible in the distance through gaps in the barricade of the Brooks Range. And then we were down and pulling into the shore of Williams Lake where two canoes already lay waiting to be joined by the one strapped to our pontoon. We unloaded and then prepared to celebrate our inaugural as a group, but Godfrey, in his excitement, dropped the bottle of champagne we had brought for the purpose, and christened the plane instead. So we all had a beer.
The weather was warm and sunny. The whispy patterns of cirrus clouds stretched across the sky. To left and right mountains rose, their occasionally white-capped peaks caught in the raking light of a mid-afternoon sun. The river was still a small stream rippling down the valley floor.
Over the next days we passed down out of our mountain fastness and into the awesome, rolling, endlessness of the Barrens. The river got bigger as we were joined by one small tributary after another, and we revelled in a continuous run of pleasant weather, broken only by rain on one day (a declared emergency which warranted two Happy Hours back to back), and by fairly chilly ‘nights’. The sun barely disappeared before it rose again. The darkest it ever got was something akin to early dusk.
The unlimited, boundless character of the land struck all of us hard. As we paddled along, we could see, off to the northwest, a weather system of cumulus clouds moving like zeppelins in from the Chukchi Sea. To the northeast, a different system of high, mottled or wispy cirrus clouds. In the southeast quarter it would be raining, or at least we could see the lowering overcast and showers here and there. And finally, to the southwest, it would be all blue sky and bright sunshine. I don’t think that I ever saw or was capable of seeing such a variety of weather systems at one time anywhere else on earth.
After a few miscues but no serious mishaps, Godfrey and I became quite expert as paddlers and as readers of the water. Throughout many trips in subsequent years we managed to carry more, ship less water, find the best routes through rapids and run most of them smoothly. The reason for our success, I think, is that we never differed on what to do once we were committed to a whitewater run. We might have argued before or changed course by agreement once begun, but we never tried to go in two different directions. Most often a lack of teamwork is what swamps a canoe.
Young rivers are the greatest joy to the canoeist. All the thrills of running whitewater are there, but few of its risks. As the Noatak tumbled out of the mountains, it offered a multitude of cheerful but difficult rapids, which gave us all a sense of exhilaration. What was reassuring, however, was that no matter how difficult a manoeuvre you were trying, you could always step out of the canoe and drag it out of danger or wade ashore.
In fact, running rapids in a small stream, while something less than heroic, is like a piano recital compared to a symphony; they each represent different forms of performance, though each is capable of its own kind of perfection. Needless to say, Godfrey and I perfected while others practised.
Despite its fairly low-grade whitewater, the Noatak offered tricky passages for the unwary. One such was where two currents came together at right angles after the river split and then reunited. Although the first two canoes negotiated it cautiously but safely, the Stollery/Pelletier canoe plowed straight across from one to the other and flipped over in a second, just like hitting an eddy incorrectly. Our rescue routine worked well, but nothing could retrieve Oliver’s shotgun or Stollery’s binoculars or Pelletier’s camera, which were among the loose items spread on top of the gear between the paddlers.
Hiking inland a mile or two to Matcharak Lake one afternoon, we caught six lake trout, cleaned them and returned to our camp with mouths watering. Oliver thoughtfully put them in a plastic bag and set it into the river to keep cool, Naturally, the current soon swept our dinner away and we stoned him mercilessly with small pebbles for his transgression until finally he had to take refuge in his tent.
Farther into the Barrens the Noatak broadened, the fishing improved and we sought every opportunity to throw in a line for grayling or trout, and hoping for a char. Where one stream came charging in from the northeast, we landed in eager haste and within a minute four fishermen were thrashing the water. Such pleasure. Such solitude – perhaps no one within a thousand kilometres of us, a country so vast and open. Within two minutes, on an unintentionally simultaneous back cast, all four lines met and tangled so badly it took twenty minutes to sort out. The irony of this wasn’t lost on us and, further, we caught no fish.
At the conclusion of our trip, I stepped outside a bar in Kotzebue where we had been celebrating our survival – perhaps 350 km from the Russian mainland, west of the Bering Strait – and gazed out toward where I thought the Diomede Islands were; dividing two continents, two countries, two ideologies.
I reflected on the oddity of boundaries: between us and them, between here and there, between east and west and between north and south. And the boundaries between country and city, between those who live alone and those who live together, between native and foreign, and what those two odd terms mean in a world so small. And I thought that the world was indeed a very strange place in which to live.