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  • Ken Ilgunas

Six days on the Noatak River

Day 1: Smoke Whitney and I were flying in the Park Service’s four-seated Beaver float plane en route to the Noatak River. Our objective was to paddle 80 miles to the Gates of the Arctic National Park’s western border to patrol for sheep poachers.

In the air, we soared through a murky blend of forest fire smoke and mountaintop fog. Plumes of smoke curved up mountain cliffs and flowed over in slow-motion caliginous cascades. And gray—in all its shades and subtleties—sucked every color out of the country.

Kurt, a new pilot for the park, asked me for directions as we approached a ground-to-sky-high wall of gray just a mile ahead. Dumbfounded that I was being asked for directions (not to mention in eye-watering haze at 3,000 feet) and wishful for an outhouse that I could high-step to, I shot Whitney a disconcerted look—the facial equivalent of “we’re going to die and/or I’m going to shit myself.”

Before I sent Kurt down the wrong mountain pass and our little party to a gory demise, I was relieved when he decided it was best to head back to Bettles where we would wait for better conditions the next day.

Day 2: Bear incident

We awoke to a clear, sunny sky. After an hour-and-a-half flight, Kurt landed on a small lake next to the Noatak.

We portaged half of our gear from the lake to the river, probably shouldering 150 pounds between the two of us. Upon reaching the bank, though, we came upon a grizzly bear standing motionlessly just 15 yards away, peering at us sinisterly.

Whitney was close behind. Recalling our Bear Encounter Training, we dropped our gear, called “hey bear” in respectful, yet leery tones, and waived our arms at it while preparing our pepper-spray for discharge.

He was ugly. Mottled black and brown, he looked like he may have been living off of fish scraps and carrion. When the 15 mph winds combed over his hide, his hair fluttered with aurora-like irregularity; it was as if he had full control over the motion of each individual bristle. He kept his head low and his eyes fixed on us with a gaze that suggested either indifference or determination: the sort of look I have on my face before I devour a chicken-finger sub.

[Before I go on, let me apologize for the absence of a picture of a bear yet again. But please understand that entertaining my humble readership and proving that I did have a bear encounter is the very last thing on my mind when, in just a few moments, I might very well be in something’s large intestine.]

He appeared to have no intention of fleeing. He sat on his meaty haunches and rolled out his tongue like a child’s paper streamer. Was he just bored with us or was this part of his standard pre-charge ritual? I couldn’t tell.

Foolishly, we brought almost all of our gear to the river except the shotgun and the inflatable canoe; the former of which was—needless to say—sorely missed. Plus, the 15 mph winds that were gusting into our faces made our pepper-spray more a liability than a defense mechanism.

We were practically defenseless.

We slowly walked away from him in the direction of our gun, about a quarter-mile away. The bear instantly went for our gear which we had just dropped. I envisioned the grizzly thrashing his way through the brush behind us at full bore—beautiful and terrifying at the same time—en route to mercilessly deliver a pair of skull-crushing bites.

When we got to the rest of our gear, we presumed that the bear tore up all our stuff including our tent, sleeping bags, and clothes. We took an inventory of what we did have: our boat, satellite phone, shotgun, a set of pots and pans—and thought up ways how we could devise a shelter out of our meager supplies.

Fortunately, though, the bear did nothing. We warily brought the boat down to the river, kept on-guard as we inflated it, and paddled hard for 15 miles in the face of stiff northern winds.

Day 3: The Noatak

The 420 miles of the Noatak River stretch from the glaciers of the Gates of the Arctic’s highest mountain (8,570-foot Mount Igikpak) to the Chukchi Sea. The Gates of the Arctic and the adjacent Noatak National Preserve make the Noatak River the largest protected watershed basin in the country.

And it is almost entirely above treeline. The hairless mountains abutting the river are as solemn and staid as a congregation of plump, cross-legged Buddhas. They looked a little sad, naked even, without the quilt of snow that covers them for most of the year.

The air is cool and dry. Hundreds of thick, puffy cumulous clouds creep over the tundra like a flotilla of galleons off to war. Shadows suddenly slung over mountain cliffs—with a change in cloud position—look like they could plow oblivious hikers over. In the distance, the mountains level out, and we can see as far as the earth’s curve.

These mountains and tundra appear to be vegetatively barren, yet we’d be constantly reminded that they’re full of life.

Day 4

Whitney and I paddled a hearty 29 miles in hopes of making the border by the start of sheep season.

After a solid 10-hours of paddling, we made a chicken, rice and bean soup while we joked about her last patrolmate, Todd. Whitney—who typically works as an interpretative ranger at a different ranger station—was assigned, two summers ago, to go on patrol with Todd—a ranger who’d deliberately violate the park service dress code by leaving portions of his shirt unbuttoned so as to expose and puff out his dark thicket of chest hair. Previously that year, Todd scrunched Whitney’s ass at work and later smilingly confided—to Whitney’s horror—that he wanted to “bite her.”

Before their patrol, Whitney told the Chief Ranger that she thought Todd was “creepy,” and that she was uncomfortable going out alone in the backcountry where he could run hog-wild nibbling limbs and grabbing asses.

The chief, in John Wayne-form, responded in his glib southern patois:

“Jus’ because someone gives you the hee-bee-gee-bees or the hoobly-booblies, doesn’t mean we have to rearrange the whole backcountry schedule. You can’t always work with people you like. You have to learn how to work with all sorts of people.”

This was another way of saying: “Jus’ because you might get raped and eaten alive, doesn’t mean we gotta change shit around.” Day 5: Caribou

In the morning as we ate oatmeal and bagels by the river, a young blonde grizzly inspected us from the other shore. This time my shotgun was close at hand so I loaded a round into the chamber and stood stalwartly like a Hatfield on the edge of his property. After yelling at it, it ran off into the brush.

We had finally reached the border. We walked into the hills that were dotted with several hundred caribou in small clusters of twos, threes and fours. As we ascended, a young caribou with eyes as big and black as eight balls—who had never seen a human nor evidence of our destructive capacities—came within a first-down of us to assuage her curiosity.

The caribous’ amber backs gleamed, velvet antlers rose regally, and when we startled a group of three around a mountain cliff, their tails shot up exposing a fleeing procession of adorable white asses. Their hooves clicked like tap-dancing shoes.

Caribou don’t appear to be constrained by the same laws of gravity that we are. When a caribou trots, it floats; their hooves barely gracing the ground.

There must have been 200 around us, migrating south, nibbling the tundra on the go. Oh how dear it is to watch animals exist unperturbed, acting how they’re supposed to act. What a world this would be if we could watch buffalo roam the same way in Iowa or see packs of wolves run through deserted suburbs, supplanted by forests that have reclaimed their rightful ownership of the soil.

I wonder if they’d be as enchanted to see us in herds at malls, baseball games, barn-raisings. I wonder what’s going through a caribou’s mind. Does it feel something akin to our notions of suprise, glee, sadness? Does it think about things and wonder as we do?

I was slightly envious of the caribou. They walk, roam, explore and eat for a living. They—at different points of the year—go from solitary travelers, to small family units and finally settle into their thousands-strong herds: the perfect blend of solitude, family, and community. But then Whitney brought to my attention the wolves, infant mortality rates, and the horrendous bugs that keep them on the run for most of the summer. After watching one caribou mindlessly harassing a ground squirrel, I thought roaming and eating, after a while, would get pretty monotonous anyway…

We walked back down to camp where we saw a red fox staring at us intently with a small, dead mammal in its mouth.

Day 6: Completion

A passing wolf swims across river unaware of our canoe just 30 yards away. It shakes itself dry, catches sight of us and lopes into the bush.

A ground squirrel on the bank barks at us and curiously watches us float by with the river current.

Caribou in happy families of twelve cross the river in dignified processions.

Wildlife abounds as the sun gleams down, coloring the water a delicious aqua blue. The dry air and sun beams make my lips bubble and turn Whitney’s face a dark shade of pink. We meander with the river around plump green hills that are Wyoming-flat up top.

How did I come to be here?, I wonder. I am a suburbanite in the wild. Yet I feel more at home here than I ever did back in New York.

This is the way things should be, I think: the natural processes of a million different organisms, undisturbed by our technologies; our prowess for usurping natural kingdoms and replacing them with car-dealerships and soccer fields has been restrained.

There is harmony here. Sure, there is blood, guts and death. But there is harmony in the coexistence between the animals—their lives bound together by relentless competition and struggle. Hard lives, yeah. But at least—unlike their unfortunate relations held captive in zoos—these animals heed to one clear and simple purpose—the passion to survive—that most of us moderns, regrettably, never have to give a passing thought to.

[Thanks go to Whitney for most, if not all, the photos]

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