Small Bears and Large Mosquitoes: An Arctic Diary by John Godfrey
Why should any sane person spend $1500 for a two-week wilderness canoe trip when you can have a very nice cruise of the Greek Islands for the same price? Well, having spend two weeks going 435 kilometres down the Noatak river in Arctic Alaska with five friends last July, on my first canoe trip ever, I can now report that it was well worth it. First there’s the sheer adventure of the thing.
Second, there’s the fascination of true solitude. There we were, six characters in search of an author, with no outside information, living off material and facts we brought in. There are very few times when you are isolated for so long with the same people. Would anyone leave six people alone in a farmhouse for two weeks? Would all of them accept it?
And finally, there is the sheer beauty of totally desolate wilderness. But let me take you back to July and give you a few jottings from the frontiersman’s diary.
Toronto, Friday, July 7: Off tomorrow to Alaska and two weeks on the Noatak River. Spending the evening worrying about everything that can go wrong. Grizzlies are definitely first on my list of horrors. Nine hundred nasty pounds, claws like daggers, fur and bone thick enough to stop bullets, grizzlies are also reported to be curious, individualistic, and highly unpredictable.
The six of us are in something of a philosophical quandary over the grizzly issue. Two are proponents of an Armed Truce; one has a handgun, the other a shotgun, both loaded with heavy slugs of dubious legality. The other four of us are a coalition of eco-freaks, softies and peaceniks.
Then there is the danger of the river itself, as it gathers volume and width in its rush to the Arctic Ocean. Old hands have told us the river was “lively”, but that portages were unnecessary. The water is cold. So rescues have to be quick. The specific peril which most alarms me is something called a “souse-hole”. These are giant frothy whirlpools which are formed in narrow parts of the river after a heavy rain, and spin you in perpetuity, like some enormous coin-operated washer-dryer.
Plane crashes, floods, madness caused by ravenous hordes of mosquitoes, appendicitis, starvation, and losing a contact lens round out the list. And so to bed.
Whitehorse, Saturday July 8: Four of us arrive at the airport at 8 a.m. with eight packs, three sets of paddles, and fishing gear. We are wildly overweight.
Edmonton, Grand Prairie, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Watson Lake, Whitehorse: up, down, across provincial, territorial, and time boundaries. An old friend of Craig’s at Watson Lake says he has never seen the bears so fierce in fifty years of guiding. Grizzlies quickly regain No. 1 Peril Spot ahead of souse-holes.
Mount Igipak, Alaska, Tuesday, July 11, 6 A.M.: Our first morning on the Noatak.
The setting is superb. The Mountains of the Brooks Range, old, bare, with snow-covered peaks and glaciers behind them. We are on a stone beach marked by occasional clumps of deep pink fireweed. Our tents are on a sandy knoll behind.
Yesterday, we spent the morning in Fairbanks shopping in various outfitters and department sores. Got to the airport about 10:30 am to find our single-engine ancient (1946) De Havilland Otter with amphibious pontoons.
Off to Nelson Walker Lake in the Otter. Across the Yukon Flats to the Brooks Range, flying through passes past treeless mountains. We land and find six canoes
A short portage to the Noatak. About a 20 minute paddle to this campsite. We get settled in and have our first “happy hour”. David and I decide that this is a dreadful cliché and must be replaced. We start with daiquiris, then move on through two bottles of champagne (I broke a third on the plane). Everybody is at this point mildly zipped. We shoot the pistol and shotgun at innocent bushes.
Wednesday, July 12, Noon: This morning we got off around 9:00 am. A fast moving current, quite shallow. We move very quickly, almost bicycle speed, for little effort. No rapids.
Timeless in the Arctic: no day, no night, no noon, time always the same, just a vague dimming of the switches.
Thursday July 13, 10:30 am
Today has a totally different feel. Overcast, less St. Tropez sunbathing and lolling about. The mosquitoes are like Muzak – background, constant but not unnerving.
Colour of the Arctic: grey green hills. Slopes. Plains. The colour comes in the sky and clouds, and in the bright bunches of red-pink fireweed, almost like azaleas in Rome in April. Also stands of cotton balls.
12:00 am LAKE MATCHURAK: The boys are fishing and we have just had our illusions shattered: we ran into another group. And they say that “dozens of groups” have already gone down the river this season, thanks to the National Geographic article least year (Preserving the Nation’s Wild Rivers, July 1977). Each man kills the thing he publicizes.
Friday July 14, 7:30 am: Camp by high bluffs near Douglas Creek. Mosquitoes by the bushel. Fifteen killed at one blow on my hat last night (they seem to go for British wool). Occasionally, they draw blood, but no itch. They should go to Northern Ontario for post-graduate work.
Rapids: mixed emotions. I am nervous going into them but bored by just plain paddling. A lot like skiing: the thrill of speed, the gearing up for the steep bits/rapids, the risk of falling/dumping, the reading of the snow/water ahead, looking for the bumps/rocks. It must be the danger and the gamble to be interesting. Dumping has worse consequences up here, though.
Thursday July 20, 9:30 am.: About 1:30 this morning, a black bear was spotted a fair way off. Some running around in pyjamas, speculation as to whether it was a grizzly, whether black bears were brown in the Arctic, etc. Checked the tracks this morning. A very small bear.
Friday July 21, 7:20 pm: Camp at the beginning of the Canyons of the Noatak. Yesterday, the ‘Grand’ Canyon of the Noatak turned out to be a bust. No canyon. Today, numerous fishing stops. Remarkably inept bunch. All the lines snagged in one fishing hole. Part of one pole landed at the bottom of the river.
Saturday July 22, noon: Saturday afternoon it started to rain. We came to Kelly’s River and found a group of rafters from Denver waiting at a landing strip to be flown out. So much for wilderness. The trip seemed over.
When we finally spotted Noatak village it reminded me of Vermeer’s View of the Delft. The sun came out, and so did the last remaining bottle of overproof rum. We downed the paddles and drifted toward the village. We disdained the muddy water and daiquiri mix and drank the rum straight. We soon became excessively cheerful.
Monday, July 24, Midnight: Nu-Luk-Vik Hotel, Kotzebue.
On a trip like this, the physical senses become dominant and frontiers that I don’t normally think of….wet/dry, cold/warm/and sandy/unsandy. On the other hand, the clean/dirty dichotomy became ambiguous, while the ultimate Great Divide became safe/dangerous, as it rarely is in daily life.
Canoe trips are licensed, socially permitted reversions to boyhood. Chasing the other canoe, stealing hats, putting big rocks in packs; the jokes, the stunts, the exuberance. All are a very good antidote to world weariness.
I also find myself becoming more observant, both of things and of people. In the Arctic, all the elements are reduced: there are only a few kinds of colours, flowers, birds, and people. The information overload of modern life is blissfully absent.
It was also an enormously conservation society. After five days, we tried switching bowmen. Wife swapping in Willowdale would been easier. There was enormous resistance to this form of paddling promiscuity. We had become patterned with our partners after only five days.
Was the trip worth it? Emphatically yes. There are very few parts of the world which are both empty and accessible in this manner. We covered 500 kilometres without seeing any human habitation. It remains a rare privilege.
John Godfrey, December 2, 1978